The peripatetic French artist JR travels the globe armed with a camera, an ambitious vision, and an apparently outsized capacity to turn it into a reality. His Women Are Heroes project in the favelas of Rio in 2008 was an inspired feat of installation art. JR (he won’t give his full name) and his crew pasted house-sized black-and-white photographs of the eyes of local women onto the houses in the favela. From afar, the women’s faces and eyes looked down over the neighborhood, observant, watchful reminders of their presence in the often-violent streets.
The artist, who has called himself a photograffeur, suggesting a combination of photographer and graffiti artist, has done the Women Are Heroes project in other violence-ridden places as well, including Cambodia and Kenya. In 2011, when he was 28, he became the youngest winner of the TED Prize, and he is using the prize money for Inside/Out, which he calls a global participatory art project.
Now, the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery is showing a small but effective selection of work from JR’s series Wrinkles of the City (on view through July 12), a collaboration with the Cuban American painter Jose Parla. The pair photographed 25 elderly residents of Havana who had lived through the Cuban Revolution, then pasted their photographs onto the sides of crumbling buildings around the city. The photographs are homages to the city’s senior citizens, their ghostly presence a symbol of the city’s collective memory.
Parla surrounded the photographs with calligraphic tangles of paint, which suggest an impenetrable foreign language, but also a symbolic tribute. In an image of a bearded man in a straw derby, the lines and swirls seem to flood from his mind, like thoughts or dreams. In another, of a woman whose eyes are closed, they envelop her like music. Like the work of other street artists who have moved into the commercial art world (Banksy, Robin Rhode), the political and social documentary impact of the work is diminished in the hushed confines of a gallery. It belongs in the noisy chaos of the streets. But even in the Wolkowitz Gallery, the affectionate humanism of JR’s portraits is irresistible.